Every day, at the behest of creator Jill Soloway, a writer’s assistant named Austin Dale sends the cast of Transparent an email they refer to as the Trans Daily Digest, a curated round-up of news articles about what’s happening in the transgender community that day.
“What you see in that, sadly and resoundingly, is that trans people are committing suicide at an alarming rate, being murdered at an alarming rate,” says Melora Hardin, who plays Tammy Cashman on Amazon’s award-winning series.
“You also get really good news!” Amy Landecker, who plays Tammy’s on-screen lover Sarah Pfefferman, jumps in. “There are days when you get it and you’re like, ‘Oh, fantastic, the world’s changing!’ And there are days when you want to cry because you can’t believe that people are still being treated like that.”
Hardin and Landecker lock eyes, a fleeting gaze that says “our hearts are sinking.” But ever-chipper and determined to lift the mood, Landecker says, “But it’s pretty cool that this is curated for us, so we’re constantly keyed in. And even in the hiatus that continues.”
In other words, the cast of Transparent is well aware of the weight they sometimes carry, working on a show that’s not just seen as excellent television, but as a creative catalyst in a burgeoning civil rights movement.
When the series premiered on Amazon last year, we met Mort Pfefferman, played by Jeffrey Tambor, the patriarch of an endearingly caustic Los Angeles family who decides to live his sunset years as her authentic self: Maura.
As Maura comes out to her family and they grapple with the transition, a question is raised that, though hyper-specific to a very particular circumstance here, is haunting in its universality: Will you still love me if…?
The first season earned raved reviews from critics and racked up dozens of awards, but, more impressively and unexpectedly, became a conversation starter for a dialogue that was long overdue about the transgender community, acceptance, love, safety, and rights.
“It seems to me that there was this missal of this movement that was already there, and then we hit and ignited it,” says Tambor.
In the short amount of time since Transparent’s debut, Caitlyn Jenner came out. Laverne Cox continued her rise as one of Hollywood’s most visible stars. President Obama became the first president to ever use the word “transgender” in a State of the Union address. And news outlets finally began to give credence and coverage to the crisis of violence and killings that continues to plague the transgender community in unacceptable numbers.
Soloway addressed that in a very public way this year while accepting the Emmy for Best Directing in a Comedy Series.
“We don’t have a trans tipping point,” she said, referring to the laudatory pats on the back the media tends to give itself for embracing the show and stars like Cox and Jenner. “We have a trans civil rights problem.”
It was an easy decision, Soloway says, to use the microphone as a megaphone for a cause that’s deeply personal for her—her own father came out to her as transgender four years ago; she now calls him, like the Pfeffermans call Maura, “Moppa.”
“It’s not about me,” she remembers thinking at the Emmys. “It’s not about my hair. It’s not about my clothes. It’s not about how I look or how I act. It’s about getting it right for the trans community and getting it right for people who haven’t seen the show, so that they can potentially come to the show and understand that there is a real civil rights movement.”
With great power, as the old cliché goes, comes great responsibility.
With the attention of the zeitgeist ready to be seized and countless accolades under its belt for its first season, Season Two of Transparent unfurls on Amazon Friday with, arguably, even more power. And, perhaps then, a greater responsibility—certainly more than any other TV series might shoulder.
“I feel it,” jokes Kathryn Hahn, who plays Rabbi Raquel Fein, the fiancée of Jay Duplass’s Josh Pfefferman. “It’s really profound to think about what has happened in the last couple of years. It’s not to say it’s because of this show. But because this show happened at such a perfect moment it was able to grab the crest of zeitgeist wave and ride it.”
Landecker marvels at the responsibility she sees Soloway and Tambor, especially, shoulder every day: “I don’t know if they could feel it any stronger.” She remembers the show’s very first table read, when Soloway told the cast, “I want to make the world a safer place for my parent. I want to save lives.”
The mission was less a responsibility to be felt than it was a mandate.
“I think not a day on the set goes by where I don’t feel the tap-tap-tapping of responsibility,” Tambor says, beating his heart with his fist at each “tap.”
His on-screen ex-wife, Judith Light, is sitting by his side, visibly lost in admiration. “There isn’t an interview that goes by or a time that goes by that Jeffrey doesn’t say it—he said it in his Emmys speech, he talked about it at the Golden Globes—this whole business of responsibility,” Light says. “What he always talks about, which I think is absolutely true, is it’s about saving lives. That’s our responsibility.”
Amidst all of this responsibility, of course, is a TV show. A very good one, at that.
One that is now following up a riveting, transformative first season with an even more ambitious Season Two, a sophomore run that expands its scope away from Maura and more into the lives of the floundering Pfeffermans and, in doing so, is already earning raves from critics as even stronger than Season One.
The notoriously narcissistic siblings are in their own respective freefalls, lightly set off by the axis-tilting news of Maura’s transition that directed them on their own personal journeys to find their authentic selves and happiness.
The Season Two premiere chronicles Sarah’s wedding to Tammy, which ends with Sarah deciding to leave Tammy during the reception. Josh and Raquel are engaged and expecting, but struggling to center their relationship with the discovery that Josh has a teenage son. And Ali (Gaby Hoffman) is exploring her own newfound queer identity.
“We feel pretty confident that it’s Transparent 2.0,” Landecker says. “It’s bigger and better.”
She laughs. “We need a little tag, like a season tag: ‘Even Messier,’” she says, looking at Hardin, who replies with a grin: “‘Even More Fucked Up.’”
If “Will you still love me if…” served as a refrain that echoed throughout Transparent’s first season, there’s a line early on in Season Two that sets this year’s theme.
Josh and Raquel are throwing a pool party and all of the Pfeffermans are in attendance. Tammy, off the wagon after being left by Sarah, drunkenly stumbles into the backyard and starts screaming at her former partner.
“You think there’s no fucking consequence!” Tammy screams at Sarah. “I am a fucking consequence!”
For viewers who spent the first season both baffled by the Pfeffermans’ behavior and all-too-closely familiar with it, the line packs a punch.
“I think Tammy’s voice at that moment speaks for the audience to the Pfeffermans,” Landecker says. “I think the Pfeffermans can be very frustrating, and people often ask about our narcissism and self-centered choices. But I think people love it because they relate to it. They know we’re human and we’re trying our best. But there are consequences!”
“That is the culture of the family, to behave selfishly, senselessly, and without considering the consequence and other people’s feelings,” Hoffman says. “This journey of self-discovery Ali is on—it’s an interesting one and it’s a necessary one and it’s an important one, but it’s also a self-serving one.”
Exploring more deeply the neuroses and the journeys of the greater Pfefferman family doesn’t come at the expense of Maura’s own story and the series’ civil rights crusade.
Expanding the scope allows Maura to reveal her own flaws, her own selfishness. Her struggles begin to mirror many of her children’s, and she’s not always likable while dealing with them.
The result is a portrait of a trans person who isn’t sainted so that we, the greater audience, will simply accept her. Instead, Maura is a more fully realized human, so that we will know her. Understand her. And love her.
“Obviously their struggles are pretty fucking specific and privileged,” says Hoffman. “They’re rich white people living in California. But they are still human and they are still trying to figure out what it means to be alive in their skin. It’s messy. It’s upsetting. It’s painful. It’s hurtful. And it’s truthful. I hope that people will come away with a little bit more understanding and love towards themselves and others.
Soloway says it was a natural evolution for season two to be less focused on Maura. But cultural circumstances that were largely outside of her and writers’ control played a role, too. Oddly enough, so did Caitlyn Jenner.
“To have Caitlyn come out and have the world understand on a large scale what it means for a patriarch to transition, whether or not they’ve seen our show, allows us a lot of freedom because we’re not having to explain that story anymore,” she says. “We’re not having to do Trans 101.”
She remembers when she had that realization, going through customs at an airport. The guard asked her what she did. “I’m a TV creator.” What’s your show about? “A family in which the dad comes out as transgender.” The guard responded, “Oh, like Caitlyn Jenner.”
“And I was like, ‘Oh yeah! Right!’ Like you know the story now,” she says. “Everybody knows the story, so now we get to just concentrate on making great television and letting the trans-ness be woven in and emanate out and be part of the fabric of this family and this show.”
To that regard, Season Two will see Maura confronting her evolving sexual identity, separate from her gender identity. Who is she attracted to? Should she have gender reassignment surgery?
There are, in what may be a polarizing creative decision, also flashbacks to 1930 Berlin, to right before the Holocaust when the Institute for Sexual Research was studying many of the topics and issues in the transgender community that we talk about now.
“I’m so excited for people to watch those parts of the show and go, ‘Well, this isn’t real. There’s no way there could’ve been a trans person in 1930. Because this is a brand new thing, right?’” Soloway says. “No. This has been going forever.”
For all of the talk of education, movements, Trans Daily Digests, and responsibility, there’s an undeniable giddiness among the cast.
Hahn knows that every actor on a TV show marches into a room with a reporter and starts waxing poetic about how everyone in their cast loves each other, like a family. But she doesn’t care. She swears that, from her, this time it’s not bullshit.
It’s a sentiment that is echoed by every other person on the show. Light, for her part, even tears up recalling shooting a scene in a bathtub with Tambor, which we won’t spoil. But to relay the text message she says Tambor sent her when they finished shooting that day: “It doesn’t get any better than this.”
“There’s something about a set like this, because it feels so small and like you’re literally putting on a show in your backyard, that you’re doing something outside the system, even though you’re not, really,” Hahn says. “It feels like you’re a troupe, like you’re putting a show on in a barn. That’s cool. That’s awesome.”